Deconstruction of homes reduces carbon emissions, saves costs, and preserves heritage

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      Property owners planning to build a new home may want to hold off on calling the demolition crew.

      There’s another way of tearing down a house, and this one presents a win for all, including the planet.

      It’s called deconstruction, which involves unbuilding a home piece by piece and reclaiming materials, particularly lumber, for reuse.

      Adam Corneil is the founder and CEO of Unbuilders, a Vancouver-based company specializing in deconstruction and salvage.

      Corneil cites benefits from using this method, including protection of the environment. “Reclaimed wood is the greenest building material,” Corneil told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      Reusing old wood means no new trees are cut. Forests, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, remain intact. Moreover, Corneil related that his company prevents materials from ending up in landfills. Decomposing wood produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

      “Last year alone, we diverted nearly 1,550 tonnes of material,” Corneil said.

      By hiring Corneil’s company, homeowners will also have the opportunity to help others have affordable homes.

      This is because Unbuilders works with Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, a nonprofit that assists people to build affordable housing.

      The way this works is that a homeowner will donate wood reclaimed from their old house to the nonprofit. The wood’s value is appraised by a third party.

      Habitat for Humanity then issues a tax receipt to the donor. Another company owned by Corneil purchases the wood from the nonprofit and resells it.

      “In choosing to deconstruct your old home, you’re supporting the construction of affordable housing,” Corneil said.

      Online, Unbuilders explains that the federal tax credit for the wood donation could amount to $18,850, and the provincial tax credit might be as much as $9,555.

      The maximum combined tax credits, in turn, reduces the total cost of a home deconstruction to $14,595. In comparison, traditional demolition costs $26,500.

      “You’re seeing significant tax savings, because there’s a lot of good materials that get salvaged,” Corneil said in the phone interview.

      Through unbuilding, Corneil is also involved in efforts to preserve heritage.

      When the Unbuilders founder spoke with the Straight, he and his team had just finished deconstructing the old Turner Dairy in Vancouver.

      In 2018, city council approved an application by Durabilt Holdings Ltd. to rezone the Mount Pleasant location of the 1913-era dairy and build 13 new townhouses. The plan involves reusing wood from the old facility.

      Corneil noted that the Turner Dairy project is a prime example of redeveloping a heritage property without losing all of its building materials.

      “Now you’re going to have a brand-new, high-efficiency building that is getting a lot of that material reinstalled in it,” he said.

      Next on Unbuilders’ list is a 1929 New Westminster winery building at 100 Braid Street, which used to be owned by the old B.C. Distillery company. Wesgroup Properties intends to develop a new building at the property, with 423 market rental homes and an art gallery.

      Corneil said the developer will reuse a portion of the materials that will be salvaged.

      Corneil said the idea for Unbuilders came to him in 2014 while he was renovating a home in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.

      He and his team stripped the house back to its studs. “Knowing how beautiful and valuable the lumber was, I was disgusted at the sheer volume of homes and buildings being demolished and landfilled in Metro Vancouver,” Corneil related.

      They kept the wood in the garage and later reused it for the home’s staircase and other finishing works.

      “We did a kind of circular development that Turner Dairy is doing on a large scale,” Corneil said.

      At about the same time in 2014, the City of Vancouver introduced a green-demolition bylaw that set reuse and recycling requirements for demolition waste.

      The bylaw covered one- and two-family homes that were built before 1940. It required the reuse or recycling for 75 percent of demolition materials. For homes that have character status, it’s 90 percent.

      In 2019, Vancouver’s green-demolition bylaw was expanded to include pre-1950 homes. The amendment also required deconstruction for pre-1910 homes and one- and two-family homes listed on the city’s heritage registry.

      A 2018 city staff report to council noted that a number of municipalities in Metro Vancouver have also implemented similar bylaws. These include New Westminster, Port Moody, Richmond, and Surrey.

      Corneil formally set up Unbuilders in 2018.

      One of the things Corneil and his team also do is take photos and videos before and during the unbuilding of a home. This way, they preserve a part of a property’s memory before the structure disappears.

      “We’re literally keeping a digital record of what that building was, and we’re keeping that layer of history alive,” Corneil said.